Celtics

Celtics

Kyrie Irving got the internet all worked up Monday by professing a desire for a 1-on-1 battle against Kemba Walker during an Instagram Live session.

The overworked punchline was to suggest that Irving would have to actually suit up against his former Celtics team in order to make that a reality. In fairness to Irving, he was speaking hypothetically about a New York-New Jersey showdown based on where Irving (West Orange) and Walker (Bronx) hail from.

But it did make us wonder: Who would win that 1-on-1 battle?

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Our natural instinct was to check the NBA’s matchup data. Yes, there’s a world of difference between a head-to-head matchup as part of a 5-on-5 game and defending in a 1-on-1 game but it’s a quarantine, we’ve got time, so why not check the numbers?

In six head-to-head battles while Irving was in Boston and Walker was with Charlotte between 2017-2019, both players had strong offensive performances against the other. Walker was the primary defender against Irving for 17 minutes, 38 seconds of matchup time and Irving generated 35 points and 20 assists with only two turnovers while connecting on 16 of 36 shot attempts (44.4 percent) though he struggled beyond the 3-point arc (3-17, 17.6 percent).

Irving was the primary defender on Walker for only 15:54 seconds of matchup time in those games and Walker finished with 20 points and 10 assists while connecting on 8 of 12 shot attempts (66.7 percent) including 4 of 6 3-pointers.

So, essentially, neither did much to slow the other. But the numbers sent our mind racing back to 2018 when Walker torched Irving and Boston for 43 points (including 21 in the fourth quarter). You’ll remember after that game, Irving questioned the game plan while noting, “Usually you just go to a double team or something simple to get the ball out of his hands but we felt pretty comfortable with Marcus [Smart] and Al [Horford] guarding him 1-on-1. We just live with the results after that.” If the Celtics’ best defenders couldn’t stop him with five guys on the floor, how would one player with questionable defensive abilities?

 

Advantage Kemba, right?

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Well, then we started thinking about all the 1-on-1 battles we watched Irving wage after practices during his time in Boston. There was the time he scored six straight times against Marcus Morris. There were sessions where he had the upper hands in spirited battles with Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. Back in 2017, Irving shredded a series of taller players (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Semi Ojeleye) in battles starting on the blocks. There’s no denying that Irving’s dribbling wizardry and shot creativity often allows him to get up a clean look, especially in 1-on-1 situations.

Advantage Kyrie?

We asked someone who competed against both Walker and Irving to pick a hypothetical 1-on-1 winner and they wouldn’t touch the question with a 10-foot pole. Then we realized why: No one wants to give either of those guys any additional motivation to put a big number up against them when their paths cross.

After even just a small sampling of Walker’s time in Boston, it’s undeniable that his personality and playing style fits this Celtics team better. Celtics fans would love nothing more than for Walker to dominate that hypothetical matchup. Irving’s ball-handling would leave us leery of picking against him in any sort of 1-on-1 competition. Just because we’ve seen more of his 1-on-1 capabilities, we might even lean that way if forced to pick a winner. Maybe more time watching Walker up close would swing us back the opposite direction.

Here’s what’s undeniable: We’d love to watch the matchup. But we’d settle for simply seeing both players at full health on the court again whenever the next Celtics-Nets matchup occurs.

Or, to echo what Irving declared in that video: “I want THAT matchup.”